Recent research has shown that a substantial number of kids with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) who have been a victim of bullying become bullies themselves at some point. A distinguishing feature of AS and HFA children is that they struggle to control their emotions. For example, they may unintentionally prompt kids to bully them again by reacting very emotionally to teasing, threats or physical aggression, and may have similar problems controlling feelings of anger and frustration, predisposing them to retaliatory aggression.
Given that these young people experience a broader range of behavioral and emotional difficulties than do “typical” kids, it is not surprising that AS and HFA victims of bullying experience anxiety, depression, peer-rejection, a lack of close friendships, and the cognitive and social difficulties often apparent in bullies themselves (e.g., a greater acceptance of rule-breaking behavior, hyperactivity, a tendency toward reactive aggression, etc.). In addition, these victims are at greater risk for psychiatric disorders and criminal offenses in young adulthood than are kids dealing with only one of these problems. Also, they have proven to be less responsive to a comprehensive school-based program for kids with severe emotional disturbances. As a result, it is of the utmost importance that they receive support and services that address the full spectrum of their needs.
Programs designed to address emotional and behavioral problems associated with being bullied:
1. Self-control techniques have been used in the treatment of both aggressive and anxious kids with AS and HFA. Given the difficulty these children have controlling their emotions, it is advisable to make this deficit a key target of interventions. “Special needs” kids develop better self-control over their emotions by learning to recognize the physical signs of anxiety or anger (e.g., muscle tension) by practicing positive self-talk (e.g., “I should stop, take a few deep breaths, and think before I act”) and utilizing relaxation techniques (e.g., muscle relaxation, deep breathing) to reduce emotional arousal and delay an immediate response to a stressful situation. This will provide careful reflection (e.g., problem solving, cognitive restructuring) prior to taking retaliatory action.
2. Problem-solving skills training is another strategy common to programs targeting behavioral or emotional problems. AS and HFA kids are helped to think of several possible solutions to a given problem, and to reflect on the positive and negative consequences of each in order to choose the technique that will maximize positive consequences in both the short- and long-term. Kids who are bullied – and then bully others in return – rely too heavily on aggressive solutions, whereas anxious or depressed youngsters often default to avoiding their difficulties. Problem-solving skills training can be used in either case to broaden the repertoire of constructive coping techniques and enhance decision-making. Decreasing depression and anxiety related to being bullied would be helpful in itself for victims, but it may have the added benefit of reducing negative moods that render AS and HFA kids vulnerable to engaging in explosive, emotional and reactive aggression.
3. Cognitive restructuring has been used to deal with aggression, anxiety, and depression in AS and HFA children. The central feature of this technique is to identify thoughts that increase anger, anxiety or sadness, challenge their accuracy, and replace them with thoughts that are more realistic and less destructive. For example, a child may learn to recognize that his anxiety rises when he assumes that all of his peers would “think he is dumb” if he were to give an incorrect answer in class. Instead, he may be encouraged to take a more realistic view, recognizing that everyone makes mistakes, and that when other people make mistakes, he does not usually think badly of them. To reinforce this concept, the child may use some positive self-talk (e.g., “It’s OK to make mistakes, because it’s how we all learn”). Applied to behavioral difficulties, cognitive restructuring techniques are often used to emphasize that there is more than one way to explain the actions of other kids. For example, since kids who are bullied – and then subsequently become bullies themselves – do not often give their peers the benefit of the doubt. They may be inclined to see teasing as cruel, which would increase anger and the likelihood of an aggressive response. However, it is equally likely that teasing may be good-natured, and in teaching AS and HFA kids to be open to this possibility, the number of peer conflicts that result in episodes of bully-like behavior may be reduced.
As a therapist who has worked with families affected by autism spectrum disorders over the years, what I see most often is that many AS and HFA kids who have been bullied by peers in elementary and middle school tend to become bullies themselves around the high school years. But, they usually do not bully their peers at school, rather they find easier targets to misplace their aggression. This is usually parents (especially single mothers) and younger siblings. In other words, they bring their frustration and aggression home with them and take it out on family members.
AS and HFA children who are victims or bullying face a complicated array of social and emotional challenges, and it is crucial that concerned moms and dads, educators, and mental health providers recognize the full extent of their difficulties, and tailor interventions to match their complex needs. More research is needed to create and evaluate programs that integrate cognitive-behavioral techniques for the treatment of both behavioral and emotional problems associated with bullying. Until that happens, parents, educators and clinicians can broaden the focus of existing school-based and clinic-based interventions by applying the strategies listed above.